Thursday, October 01, 2009

An Annoyed Rant...

...against the Revised Common Lectionary.

I'm trying to be a good sport about this. I really am. I was opposed to its adoption, single-handedly stalling it on the floor of the House of Deputies in 2003 and failing to do so when it was brought up again in 2006. (No always means 'No for now' while Yes means 'Yes forever'.) But there's no core theological or moral principle at stake here (not at long as we have the two track option for the first reading, at any rate), so, per my ordination vows, I use the ****** thing.

But as I begin to prepare my homily for All Saints Day (which actually falls on Sunday this year), I am reminded how, the more I use the RCL, the less I like it. Let me count the ways (the ones that affect me right now, anyway):
  • Gone is the familiar and beloved passage from Ecclesiasticus 44 ("Let us now praise famous men ...") that has been part of the Prayer Book liturgy for All Saints since 1549. Not just from this year of the cycle, but from all three. It's not there anymore. That disavowal of our tradition makes me sad and angry.
  • Instead, in this Year B, we have another familiar passage from the Apocrypha--Wisdom 3:1-9 ("The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God..."), often used at funerals and at a handful of lesser feasts and votive Masses. This is not an altogether implausible choice. However, in conjunction with the other readings, one can see it as part of a package that falls short of the mark of a robust theological illumination of the meaning of the feast.
  • The second reading is from Revelation 21 (New Jerusalem, God dwelling with humankind, no more tears). This is a passage of hope and comfort, but what does it say about the heroic hagioi ("holy ones") who have come through the Great Tribulation and whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and who cast their crowns before the One seated on the throne? In other words, how is it an All Saints' Day text?
  • The gospel is from John 11 (Jesus shows up to raise Lazarus, weeping in the process). Again, very comforting. But what does it have to do with the occasion?

I am left wondering whether the framers of the RCL even understand what All Saints' Day is, what its history is, and how it relates to the following day (All Faithful Departed in the BCP, known popularly as All Souls). Have they fallen into the trap of conflating the two (along the lines of the para-Christian Latino observance of El Dia de los Muertes)? Do these lections contribute to the blurring of the appropriate distinction between November 1, when we honor the heroic holiness of those from whom we are inclined to request prayers on our behalf, and November 2, when we remember more ordinary departed Christians for whom we are more inclined to offer prayers on their behalf? The readings from Wisdom 3 and Revelation 21 seem more fitting for the latter than for the former.

Anyway, back to sermon prep. I must play the hand I've been dealt. I will actually come up with a sermon based on these readings.


The Holy Spirit is always faithful in my homiletical ministry, I have found. But I'm not a happy preacher at the moment.


Undergroundpewster said...

My gripe with the RCL is that the Sunday readings frequently leave out verses in the middle of a passage. Of course, there are some passages that will never be read on Sunday in an Episcopal church. I fear that a large percentage of my fellow pewsters get their only exposure to scripture from these carefully selected and sometimes expurgated verses.

Jody Howard said...


One bit of consolation is that (at least as I was taught) it is always OK to expand the lectionary reading (for instance, by including censored verses)--it's just not OK to shorten it. Of course, such an ability should always be used sparingly (for fear of doing the sort of thing the lectionary is supposed to work against), but they are helpful at certain times.

Daniel Martins said...

Fr Jody is correct about freedom to add, but not subtract. Sometimes there is a compelling reason for skipping around and omitting sections. Other times there is not. One must simply be vigilant.

sam said...

Father Dan,

Can I just encourage you by saying that, as much as I hate the RCL, my parish in North Carolina used it, and I managed to preach a (I think) decent sermon for All Saints' last year. I managed, at least, to make a case for the veneration of saints that didn't go over the heads of my Baptist parents or some of our more reformed parishioners. But that was Year A, and I think the readings were a little better. I do think that All Saints and All Souls are too often conflated, as they seem to be in these readings -- they certainly were in that parish, which is why the sermon was much more expository on the subject of All Saints than it was on the readings (I used the readings more as vocabulary than as central message). If I were preaching in a more self-conscious Catholic parish, it would turn out very different. (If you like I'll send you that sermon, but I wouldn't presume to think it would be helpful to you.)

Anonymous said...

I put off the ***** thing as long as I could, and then after Easter began twining the two L's (I figure as long as both are operative we actually have the permissive potential for at least 6 to 8 options). Then, when it became clear the gospel lessons would follow pretty much the same track through Pentecost "season", I made the both feet jump.
So far this summer I have found the RCL to include two passages that I use often that - to my surprise - were not Sunday lections from the BCP. So that has been serendipitous. I also think we are now spending anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes longer listening to scripture because, a) the passage choices seem to contain more verses, and b) I have no problem filling in where verses are "missing", nor adding a sentence or two to make sure context is complete.
Just my own observations, so far.

Re: All Saints (or any other festival day where traditional scripture passages have been scrubbed), I see no restrictions to referring to (by reading out loud) ANOTHER section of scripture (such as Eccles.) in order to press a point in the sermon or "fill in the picture".
Part of your point, though, is that without such lections as Eccles. listed in the lectionary, and thus (in many congregrations, anyway) without those same lections included in pre-printed scripture inserts, and again without those same lections included in online sermon prep resources, the theological richness and import of such lections will simply disappear from proclamation.